FEBRUARY 2, 2016
WHEN THE CAMERAS stopped rolling and the actors wandered from the set of their Main Street, when a season’s filming was completed and other projects rushed to the fore, when the mega-hit TV show they starred in had aired its final episode, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts maintained their friendship. In an industry notorious for false loyalties, it was a curious bond the two shared, possibly primetime’s original bromance, and more curious still for the fact that one’s pleasure in the other’s company was no mere put-on: their mutual affection lasted until the very end of their lives. Don, perhaps joking of a heavenly vision, spoke from his deathbed in Los Angeles of a “great wizard in the sky” coming “to take me away.” Andy, during his later years a devout Methodist, felt “heaven was real, a place he hoped to go, and he wanted more than anything to see Don there when he arrived.”
That, anyhow, is how Daniel de Visé reports it in his engaging new biography Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show. Derived from extensive interviews, the eminently readable narrative benefits from another primary form of expertise: de Visé was Don Knotts’s brother-in-law (the author’s wife is sister to Knotts’s widow). If that means de Visé shies from drawing discomfiting conclusions about certain aspects of his featured pair’s friendship, it is not for want of characterization, humorous detail, or skillfully inflected anecdote. After all, had he exercised a biographer’s prerogative for making quasi-objective pronouncements, he would be failing to heed the essential lesson of The Andy Griffith Show: it’s best, when living in everyday proximity to people you care about, to show tact for their feelings and to entertain their beliefs, even if that means brushing unpleasant facts under the rug, now and again. Or, at least, Sheriff Andy Taylor was always willing to do as much for Deputy Barney Fife: “Barney, it was diplomacy, public relations!” Andy exclaims in an episode from the fourth season (“Citizen’s Arrest”), a phrase that might have been one of the show’s taglines.
We live, to be sure, in different times, but the times were always different from The Andy Griffith Show: it arrived on TV, in retro black-and-white, at the beginning of the 1960s, a conscious throwback to another era — specifically the difficult childhoods of its two principal actors. Don Knotts, a product of Morgantown, West Virginia, was the youngest offspring by several years of a mentally unstable, fire-and-brimstone-crazed father whose abusive behavior drove his son into a close bond with his mother: as Knotts later said, he found refuge “by filling my space with imaginary characters with whom I would act out some happy drama.” Griffith, meanwhile, was a good boy from modest circumstances; beloved by his hard-working, fond-of-drink parents, yet prey to bullies of whom there were plenty in the mill-town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Seeking refuge in the Moravian church, Griffith detoured from a plan to be a minister when he discovered his joy in singing on stage. Married young to Barbara “Bobby” Edwards, the undisputed star of a musical acting troupe of which he also was a member, Griffith made a pact with his bride that whomever found success first, the other would adopt a supporting domestic role. In New York City, it was Andy who broke through — predictably, given the era — but not as a singer or musician, although those talents did figure as elements of his celebrated comedy routines.
By no means was the town of Mayberry planned to turn out as it did. Originally, the show was to feature Andy Griffith’s own comic stylings, routines that relied on a spoof version of his down-home North Carolinian manner, or as Griffith himself put it, “the ultimate aw-shucks farm boy.” (Audio samples of his retellings of Shakespeare, a sort of Drunk History of its time, are available online.) Enduring a lull in promising work following praise for his film debut in Elia Kazan’s still stunningly relevant A Face in the Crowd (1957) and the success of the slapstick comedy No Time for Sergeants (1958), Griffith signed a TV contract giving him creative leeway for what the CBS network was betting would be a major hit. Having met and bonded over their parallel backgrounds in the stage version of No Time for Sergeants — the pair “spent their spare moments playing mumblety-peg, a school-yard game from the Mark Twain era that involves throwing a pocketknife at one’s foot” — Knotts and Griffith reconnected on a cross-continent call from Los Angeles to New York, after Knotts happened to catch the pilot for The Andy Griffith Show during a card game with fellow actors in Hollywood. “Listen, don’t you think Sheriff Andy Taylor ought to have a deputy?” Knotts recalled asking years later.
The down-home comfort of Main Street Mayberry, where conversations ran as casual as the day was long, took contradictory life from the hectic and vertiginous spin of advertising revenue and TV ratings. In effect, Andy and Don stood calmly at the center of a commercial frenzy, a viewer’s appreciation for which adds just one more layer of humor, borderline-Beckettian absurdity, and even a sort of integrity, to the scenes they performed together. While it had been producer Sheldon Leonard’s vision that Griffith would play multiple roles on the show “all for madcap effect,” his star wasn’t having it: he wanted something more real, a show viewers could live through and not experience as sheer satire.
When Knotts joined the cast for the filming of the first season, the narrative shifted from Griffith as the initial comic focus to Knotts. Sheriff Taylor became, in effect, shepherd to Barney Fife’s anxious lamb, straight man to his waywardness, as well as the idealized widowed father to a young son (Ron Howard’s Opie). In certain respects, de Visé notes, Griffith also acted in a fatherly capacity to Knotts, who actually was his elder by two years; after a relatively brief interval during which he petitioned his creative team for more chances to exercise his comic chops, Griffith opted to pass along punch lines assigned to him by a script because Knotts delivered them funnier. Still, like a father, Griffith hoarded his privileges. While the namesake of the series grew wealthy on the success of his sitcom about Middle America, Knotts muddled along earning a middle-of-the-road salary season after season, even as Emmy awards for his acting multiplied. Knotts, then, de Visé suggests, was Mayberry’s abiding middle-class touchstone.
While Andy & Don is slightly sketchy on the facts of Griffith’s personal life, de Visé records just enough to impart a certain complicated understanding of the man. In a painful irony, one of TV’s great father figures grew so immersed in his own stardom that his relationship to his first wife Barbara, and their adopted son Sam, irreparably suffered. Little Ron Howard’s father, Rance, was a constant presence on the set, and by watching their father-son interactions, Griffith and his creative team derived scenarios for their show. Meanwhile, Sam and adopted sister Dixie rarely visited; Andy Griffith elected to keep his showbiz and family lives separate, even as the former consumed more and more of his energies. Always stormy, the relationship between Andy and Barbara sank into outright acrimony by the time of their divorce. Andy threw himself into his acting career with renewed vigor; Barbara gave herself over to alcohol, which de Visé suspects was crushing for son Sam. How to reconcile feelings of extreme ambivalence toward a father when that father was perceived as the most wonderful in the country — a surrogate, in fact, for many other children — must have presented an inescapable snarl for Sam Griffith. It was, de Visé shows, a decidedly blind spot for Andy, even if a readily comprehensible one given his dedication to fictional Mayberry.
Critical success on The Andy Griffith Show made Don Knotts into the most unlikely of movie stars: Jimmy Stewart at his most exasperated crossed with Steve Buscemi at his least sinister, with routines evocative of a young Buster Keaton. Like Andy, Don roved outside the bounds of his marriage, and paid for it; like Andy, Don married three times. Yet Don, one way or another, perhaps because his real success was longer in coming, maintained cordial relations with his ex-wives and children. Those close to Don Knotts seemed to have always felt they needed to care for him as if his survival depended on it, and sometimes it did: in his later years, Knotts struggled with insomnia and addiction as part and parcel of a penchant for clubbing and womanizing, until giving all of it up, on a dime, after an accidental sleeping pill overdose followed in short order by an ultimatum from his third wife. For Knotts, like Griffith, the line between fiction and reality was fraught with both confusion and reward. In de Visé’s words: “… after years of inhabiting docile, submissive characters on stage and screen, he had come to regard himself as a loser. He had projected that image so well that the public had embraced him as a loser. And now that success had made him a winner.” Midway through his career, in conversation with “a prominent Hollywood psychiatrist,” Don Knotts found himself screaming, “Fuck you, God,” as a means of exorcising the abusive shadow of his Bible-thumping father: not exactly the Mayberry anybody remembers.
And yet the Mayberry that people remember and invest with nostalgia has come to stand as an ideal for conservative America: a Main Street devoid of affectations, friendly understandings between unhurried white men all of whom call each other by first name, the harmless, dedicated decency of a police force prone to goofball hijinks, and a father who always knows best. These are attractive myths, and pervasive too — certainly less toxic and far friendlier than the news media image of Southern police forces in the 1960s.
When Americans get exercised in their disdain for the news media (usually at the behest of one news media figure or another), it is frequently an Andy Griffith Show vision that their protests fall back on: we’re simple good folk, and proud of that simplicity and goodness, they seem to say — never mind any prejudice that might underlie that image! Nonetheless, the quality of The Andy Griffith Show lies in its layered portrayal of a town, which includes a gay man, or at least a gay actor (Jim Nabors) playing the goofball Gomer; a “queer cult lesbian” character as scholar Alexander Doty describes Aunt Bee; an outspoken feminist in the form of Andy Taylor’s eventual bride, the elementary school teacher, Helen Crump (given a homely name by the writers because their original intent was to write her swiftly off the show); and, of course, Barney Fife, a lovable guy who never quite conformed to the masculine ideal. Sneakily groundbreaking, to be sure, given its audience of the time: Andy, or “Ange,” as Knotts called Griffith both on screen and in life, was somehow always able to keep his sidekick’s zealotry in check. In fact, The Andy Griffith Show featured nary a rounded-out nuclear family, as traditionally defined. In the words of a grown-up and reminiscing Ron Howard, Mayberry taught its viewers “a community can be a family. The town of Mayberry is one big family.”
At the center of it all was the bond between Griffith and Knotts. Eventually, Knotts left for greener pastures, and a few years later the show and its spinoffs left the airwaves. But the friendship survived, reprised on screen, improbably, more than a decade later once a frailer and newly devout Griffith’s Matlock had established itself as a TV success: Knotts joined the cast as an occasional guest star, Griffith’s partner in banter once again.
De Visé leaves little doubt that Griffith was the driving creative force and the actor with greater range, even if painful ironies trailed him to the end of his days. Whereas in the season one episode “Mayberry Goes Hollywood” the show extols the value of small-town authenticity over the weakness of its denizens for putting on airs in the presence of big-time movie-people, by the end of his life the reverse had happened to Griffith’s native Mount Airy. Such was the fate of many small towns across the country that came to sell postcard visions of themselves to outsiders as a revenue driver once old-school industry had fled. Today Mount Airy presents itself as the original Mayberry, with Mayberry-inscribed signs visible up and down the block, the heart and soul of an 80 million dollar tourist industry encompassing the town and its environs. It was an evolution that Griffith, retired on his estate in coastal Manteo, resisted allowing to the last. Likewise, after Knotts’s death, the elderly actor attempted to control the legacy of his colleague and friend, denying the city of Morgantown the right to erect a statue of Deputy Barney Fife for the reason that any statue of Knotts should represent Knotts and not a TV character. Whether Knotts himself would have objected, de Visé has written a book that goes a long way toward presenting a more complex portrait of the two men than their most famous personas allowed.
J.T. Price’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere. He has published nonfiction and reviews with BOMB Magazine, The Daily Beast, and The Millions. More at www.jt-price.com.